Theatre review: Monarch of the Glen, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Scotland has bens, glens, tartan and castles the way Ireland has leprechauns and good craic; they may not be very helpful in building a modern, inclusive nation, but they fairly help to boost the tourist industry. Just occasionally, though, a piece of work comes along – film, novel or theatre show – that pulls off the trick of invoking all those stereotypes, while at the same time delivering some searingly witty home truths about the nation; and it’s exactly that kind of experience that playwright Peter Arnott, director Richard Baron and a fine Pitlochry company have conjured up in this joyful and hilarious new stage version of Compton Mackenzie’s 1941 novel The Monarch Of The Glen, which seems set to attract packed houses for its brief autumn run.

Scotland has bens, glens, tartan and castles the way Ireland has leprechauns and good craic; they may not be very helpful in building a modern, inclusive nation, but they fairly help to boost the tourist industry. Just occasionally, though, a piece of work comes along – film, novel or theatre show – that pulls off the trick of invoking all those stereotypes, while at the same time delivering some searingly witty home truths about the nation; and it’s exactly that kind of experience that playwright Peter Arnott, director Richard Baron and a fine Pitlochry company have conjured up in this joyful and hilarious new stage version of Compton Mackenzie’s 1941 novel The Monarch Of The Glen, which seems set to attract packed houses for its brief autumn run.

Monarch of the Glen ****

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Pitlochry Festival Theatre

The story famously concerns Sir Donald MacDonald, laird of Glenbogle, and his efforts – alongside his neighbour and friend Kilwillie – to extract some cash for their crumbling estates from a wealthy American, Chester Royde. Mackenzie’s story, though, is not to be confused either with the soft-edged television updating of the early 2000’s, or with the many similar tales told in fiction over the years; for Mackenzie is a no-holds-barred social satirist, who turns his yarn into a playing-field for some hilarious observation of Scottish and UK politics, from tensions between traditional landowners and socialist hikers, to the perennial Scottish argument between insurgent nationalist patriots – represented here by kilt-wearing Glasgow poet and architect Alan McMillan, played with muscle-rippling romantic relish by James Rottger – and equally patriotic establishment Unionists like the laird, known to all as Ben Nevis.

Peter Arnott’s fine adaptation adds several delicious layers of contemporary self-awareness to the narrative, with the various levels of fiction brilliantly orchestrated by Mark Elstob as the narrator Prew, among several other roles.

Ken Harrison’s witty design adds a whole dimension of self-satirising landscape and puppetry to the show, with cars, stags, Highland dancers and mountain hares all popping up on cue.

And Richard Baron’s fine ensemble – led by Benny Young as Ben Nevis, with River City’s Deirdre Davis as his wife Trixie, Outlander star Grant O’Rourke as Chester Royde and Isobel McArthur as Chester’s wife Carrie – look as if they’re having the time of their lives, dancing and stalking their way through this brilliant satire on Scotland’s complicated relationship with its own cliches; but not without making sure that the audience, too, are having the best of times, reflected in roars of laughter, and a well-deserved final ovation.

*Until 12 November.